Politics and picture books aren’t, perhaps, ideas that automatically go hand in hand in readers’ minds – especially if they are exhausted parents, absently chanting rhymes as their minds steal off. But political themes, both quiet and strident, are often interwoven with the usual suspects’ anthropomorphised cuteness, noisy transport and fairytale retellings. From feminism to climate change, war, immigration and human rights, picture books can provide an easy way into, and fruitful discussion points for, some complex and challenging concepts.
Last year, the children’s laureate Chris Riddell created an unusual stocking-filler, My Little Book of Big Freedoms – a picture-book version of the Human Rights Act, published in partnership with Amnesty International. The rights to life, freedom from torture, protection from slavery – all are elegantly distilled into line drawings featuring vulnerably small children and impressive, sometimes mythological animals representing the abstract freedoms. It’s a beautiful book, with no story: just a sense of celebration and a calmly rousing call to arms. It’s also the perfect jumping-off point for discussion with children who are curious about the world and its rulers – or perturbed by cruelties seen or heard on the news.
Another titan of children’s literature has also turned his hand to politics, featuring a more martial tone than Riddell’s dainty book. Michael Foreman’s The Little Bookshop and the Origami Army (Andersen Press), out in paperback this June, delivers not so much a sideswipe as a sharp poke in the snoot to the parliamentary status quo. When Mr Bookseller’s shop is earmarked for demolition, Joey rouses Origami Girl from a bag of newspapers, and she brings Peter Pan, Alice, Toad and a host of others leaping to the rescue of their treasured, beloved books. They sweep into parliament, but discover the politicians “snoring like pigs round a trough”. When Origami Girl tries to wake them, the prime minister responds: “Why? It’s not time for our holidays yet.” “These people are useless,” she retorts, and sends for reinforcements from the Public Library, ensuring the builders’ delighted cooperation, the tearing up of the superstore plans, and the construction of an extension to the Little Bookshop – and a people’s park for good measure. It’s hard not to yearn for such an executive.
Steve Antony, meanwhile, might be best known for queenly capers and pandas questing for well-mannered wildlife, but in Green Lizards vs Red Rectangles (Hodder Children’s Books) he turns his hand to the difficult task of dealing with war for a picture book audience. Bald, brief statements: “The Green Lizards and the Red Rectangles were at war” – allow the bold, blocky shapes of the rectangles and the jellified, yet still individuated heaps of the lizards to do the bulk of the talking, aiming to squeeze each other out of existence until one brave lizard asks: “WHAT ARE WE FIGHTING FOR?”
Unfortunately, he is summarily squashed, which leads to the “biggest war ever” – but ultimately to a truce, and to a beautifully balanced, negotiated coexistence (and the back paper features a tiny lizard exchanging a secret kiss with a rectangle). Playful and bold as its treatment is, this book offers an easy, safe means to talk about the idea of war, away from the horrific images and child-confusing fearfulness of the news.
Lastly, Shaun Tan’s extraordinary, wordless book The Arrival might be 10 years old this year, but it’s seldom felt more relevant, as thousands of refugees try to adapt to baffling new environments, attempting to make themselves unthreatening, valuable, safe. The tenderness of Tan’s graphite-rendered details – smiling photographs, origami birds, the well-worn and familiar – is counterbalanced by the the baffling, fearsome violence many have fled, and by the strange, somehow deafening confusion involved in getting used to a whole new everything, from language to maps, food to work to games. A sense of hopefulness, however, pervades every page, and it’s this mute appeal to preserve what matters most that I think all these books have in common. Freedom, imaginative richness, willingness to compromise, and to extend a welcome where it’s needed – there are many worse messages to absorb at bedtime, both for parent and for child.